President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered Russian troops into two Moscow-backed rebel regions of Ukraine, sparking an outraged response from the West, with the United States denouncing the move at the UN Security Council as a “pretext for war.”
After weeks of rallying troops around Ukraine, Putin recognized the independence of the rebel-controlled regions of Donetsk and Lugansk from the former Soviet state — paving the way for the deployment of a potential invasion force.
In an often angry 65-minute national speech televised from his office, Putin railed against Ukraine as a failed state and “puppet” of the West.
Putin said it was necessary to “make a long-awaited decision to immediately recognize the independence of the two regions”.
In two official decrees, the Russian president instructed his defense ministry to “take on the role of peacekeeping” in separatist-controlled regions.
Moscow’s move sparked international condemnation and a pledge of targeted sanctions from the United States and the European Union — with a broader package of economic penalties in the event of a further invasion of Ukraine’s territory.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting where US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield described Putin’s reference to peacekeepers as “nonsense”.
“We know what they really are,” Thomas-Greenfield said, adding that Putin’s speech amounted to a “series of outrageous, false claims” aimed at “creating a pretext for war”.
Russian ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, told the meeting that Moscow is still open to a diplomatic solution.
“However, admitting another massacre in the Donbas is something we do not intend to do,” he added, referring to the region that includes Donetsk and Lugansk.
Putin’s move sparked panic in financial markets, with stocks in Asian trading plummeting as oil prices spiked.
‘We are on our own land’
When news of the recognition hit the streets of Kiev late at night, many were in disbelief but said they were ready to defend their country if called upon.
“I am very shocked,” Artem Ivaschenko, a 22-year-old cook who is originally from Donetsk, told AFP in the capital. He called the admission the “scariest news” he’d heard since fleeing the region eight years ago.
“I live here, I’ve already lost part of my homeland, it’s been lost, so I’ll protect it.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky convened a meeting of his National Security Council and telephoned several world leaders in an effort to bolster support.
“We expect clear support steps and effective support steps from our partners,” he said in a televised overnight speech, swearing that Kiev was not afraid of anyone.
“It is very important now to see who our real friend and partner is and who will continue to scare the Russian Federation with words,” he said.
“We are on our own land.”
In his speech, Putin repeatedly suggested that Ukraine was essentially a part of Russia.
He accused Kiev of persecuting Russian speakers and preparing a “blitzkrieg” against the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine.
“As for those who seized and held power in Kiev, we demand an immediate cessation of their military operations,” Putin said.
“Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will fall entirely on the regime in power in Ukraine.”
And he made it clear that the stakes were greater than Ukraine, whose efforts to join NATO and the European Union have deeply angered Moscow.
“Using Ukraine as a tool to confront our country poses a serious, very big threat to us,” Putin said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Putin’s move “a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity”, with his foreign minister promising new sanctions against Russia.
EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel promised the bloc “will respond with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act”.
At the UN Security Council meeting, China called on all sides for restraint and for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
The announcement came after weeks of tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.
Russia had amassed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, prompting warnings from the West that Russia would invade — claims Moscow repeatedly denied.
Tensions then mounted this week after an outbreak of heavy shellfire on Ukraine’s eastern frontline with the separatists and a series of reported incidents on the border with Russia.
Ukrainian officials said on Monday that two soldiers and a civilian were killed in more shelling on frontline villages.
Fears of conflict have led to evacuations from the Ukrainian capital, with the United States saying late Monday it would send all of its diplomats still in the country to Poland for security fears.
A correspondent for France’s Le Figaro video posted daily of columns of tanks, artillery and armored vehicles towards the city of Donetsk.